From Vologda we drove south towards Yaroslavl, turning west just before hitting the city for a detour to Rybinsk. For the first time on our journey (since I left Volgograd) we encountered the great river Volga, splitting the town of Tutaev through the middle. We briefly stopped in Tutaev for a car wash – after so many miles and dirty roads the car needed it. We continued along the north bank of the Volga until we came to the bridge to Rybinsk.
Rybinsk is where the Volga is dammed – on a map it looks like the Volga flows out of the Rybinsk reservoir and this is therefore its source, but really the reservoir is just a wide pooling section of the Volga resulting from the dam – there is a lot more Volga further upstream. Nevertheless, it is at Rybinsk where boat traffic on the Volga passes the great statue Mother Volga. It sits at the end of a long spit in the centre of the river, stretching out from the hydro-electric dam. Unfortunately when we stopped at the dam to go and take a look we were told there is no access. The only way to see the statue close up is by boat.
We drove a little further up the river to Kammeniki, the village closest to the point where the reservoir flows into the river. To be pedantic, the geography is not that straightforward. The opposite bank to Kammeniki is actually an island, so technically Kammeniki is on a peninsula in the reservoir, facing an island in the same reservoir. But the majority of water that passes between these two banks can go nowhere else but the Volga, so for the purposes of my photographs, I treated it as the source of the main stretch of the Volga.
It was such a peaceful, idyllic place. There was a church, full of fenced-off graves, each one with a photograph of the deceased on the tombstone. There was a boat with two men in it just drifting away from the bank, their mission to fish. There were children playing and laughing, some came by on bicycles. There was a man carrying pieces of building material from one place to another place, for what purpose, I don’t know. The river here was crystal clear, you could easily see the bottom of the river even in the deeper parts. I wondered, if I put a little wooden boat on the river here, how long before it would pass by Volgograd? Days, certainly, maybe weeks.
We returned to the centre of Rybinsk, and found all the usual paraphernalia – embankment with sculptures, check, cathedral, check, war memorial, check, statue of Lenin, check. The unusual thing about this statue of Lenin is that he was wearing a very thick overcoat. Today it really wasn’t necessary, the sun was shining. There was one more place I wanted to visit – a museum of ghosts.
In 1935 a group of high-ranking Soviet politburo members, including Kaganovich, Mikoyan and Molotov, signed the order for the Volga to be dammed at Rybinsk in order to create a reservoir and a hydro-electric power station to provide Moscow with water and power. The consequence of this is that a large area of land would be submerged, including the historic town of Mologa.
There was plenty of warning, and plenty of assistance by the state for the people affected to be rehoused. Many of them were moved to Moscow and other large urban cities, others were able to move to higher ground nearby and continue their traditional rural lifestyle.
Around 660 villages were lost, as well as the town of Mologa and its churches and convent. 130,000 people lived in Mologa alone. It has been reported that declassified secret police files show that 294 people refused to leave and were left to drown. If you speak to the people at the museum dedicated to Mologa they will tell you this is an urban myth, the area was completely evacuated long before the dam was completed and the waters began to rise, in 1940. I personally doubt the reservoir would have filled so quickly that people caught couldn’t have waded to safety.
The museum has photographs of the town and region from the early years of the 20th century, and artifacts recovered from the lake, including pieces of iron from the convent gates. It also shows what life was like for both poor peasants and wealthy townsfolk and celebrates some of Mologa’s long history (it was founded in the 12th century).
Every now and then, the waters recede enough that the remains of the town become visible again. There are no buildings left, all that can be seen are the foundations. There are photographs of surviving inhabitants of the town visiting the site. It is known as the “Russian Atlantis” and is a fascinating story.
We returned along the south bank of the Volga and finally arrived in Yaroslavl, the day before Victory Day. Yaroslavl is the oldest city on the Volga, and was founded by Prince Yaroslav the Wise in the 10th or 11th centuries. There is a statue of him on the roundabout outside the city’s Kremlin. The city sits where the Kotorosi river joins with the Volga, and the embankment where the two rivers intersect is decorated with fountains, gardens and statues.
Our hostel was located just behind Kirov Street, which is similar to the Arbat in Moscow in that it has lots of places to eat and drink, places to buy souvenirs, decorative lights and street performers. At the far end there is an arch, turn left at the arch and continue on, and you come to the aforementioned Kremlin, and the statue of Yaroslav. The Kotorosi flows behind the Kremlin and the embankment walk has an array of cathedrals and churches.
The Golden Ring
Yaroslavl is the first city of the “Golden Ring” – a collection of historical cities to the north-east of Moscow, and it celebrates this honour with a signpost pointing to all the other Golden Ring cities, and Moscow itself, which it calls “Kilometre Zero.” The other cities are Vladimir, Ivanovo, Suzdal, Kostroma, Sergiev Posad, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy and Rostov.
We left Yaroslavl on Victory Day while the city was getting ready for the festivities. There was a stage ready, there were several military vehicles, and classic vehicles, and everyone was wearing the orange and black ribbon. In fact a man handing out ribbons thrust a couple into our hands insisting we must wear them. The crowds were building, the part of the city including our hostel was closed to motor vehicles, and we had to break out of the police cordon to escape (kidding, they let us out with no problems!).